What makes a Commonwealth student tick? From the classes that capture their attention to their favorite books, foods, and even paradoxes, their interests are hampered only by their imaginations—and, perhaps, the hours in a day.
Meet Ayla Denenberg '23 of Newton, Massachusetts, and discover how this self-described "humanities geek" discovered a love of science, how school has changed since the pandemic started, and how to make the most of freshman year.
Getting to Know You
What is bringing you joy right now?
My friends. We're all very close. Even though we can't all be together like we used to, we're always talking, hanging out virtually and even sometimes in person (safely!). Also, coffee.
What are you doing to recharge?
Besides drinking coffee? I ride horses, and spending time at the barn is my favorite way to de-stress. When I can find the time, I watch shows— I'm a huge fan of The Good Place on Netflix. I also love to bake.
What is your favorite book (or a book you've re-read)?
Oh man, I read too many books to ever pick a favorite! In general, I really like books with powerful endings.
Some books on my shelf that are significantly more tattered than the rest, though, are The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern and The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I remember reading The Help just on repeat when I was in sixth grade, there's something about the story that just makes you want to come back and read it again. I can still read it and enjoy it as much as I did the first time around.
What do you think is the most intriguing paradox?
I don't really know very much about paradoxes, but one that I remember hearing years ago and thinking was interesting was Zeno's dichotomy paradox: If you have to get somewhere, you must first get halfway there, and before that you have to get a quarter of the way there, and before that an eighth, and so on. The paradoxical conclusion is that to travel across any finite distance you can't begin, and you can't end.
What are your favorite comfort foods?
One of my favorites is shakshuka, a Middle Eastern tomato and egg dish that my family has on special occasions. And I always have a jar of candied ginger on my desk.
What was/is your favorite class at Commonwealth or elsewhere?
I am a total humanities geek, English in particular. Besides the fact that I love to read and to discover new authors and pieces of literature, I really enjoy the kind of vigorous conversation that we have in Commonwealth English classes. The debates can get heated, and I walk away with this amazing feeling of "oh, I never would have seen that on my own." Once, last year, I had an assignment where I had to teach my classmates a passage from my independent reading book, Forster's A Room With A View. In preparing to walk the class through what I had observed, I had to consider how to make the discussion the most meaningful to them, so that they would hopefully come away with a similar feeling. It was really, really cool.
However, I can say with confidence that my favorite class at Commonwealth has been Biology, in ninth grade. It's become something of a running joke with people who know me, actually, that I spend as much time in the bio lab as I can, even this year when I'm no longer in the class. There's just something about that kind of science that really appeals to me and makes a lot of sense. Even when we went virtual and we had to scale back the classwork, I emailed Ms. Sundberg asking for interesting articles about neuroscience, and I spent a lot of last spring taking notes on that section of the textbook, which we weren't even covering in class! And it came as such a surprise last year, too, when at the end of first quarter my advisor asked me what my favorite class was and I was like, "Actually, biology! I've never had a science class be my favorite before!"
Pen or pencil?
Oh, pen, for sure. I even have different colors for different classes in my planner, and all that.
Life as a Commonwealth Student (and Beyond)
Why did you choose Commonwealth?
The first time I visited Commonwealth, I remember walking past 3E on my tour and inside was a group of students, not in a class, excitedly drawing some math proof on the board. And that seemed to sum up my first impression of the school pretty well. The part of Commonwealth that struck me the most along with the academics was the sense of the community, that the vibes in the building that are just welcoming and alive all the time.
Before we went virtual, you could walk into any hallway, and there's a pretty good chance there would be students sprawled out with, like, the entire contents of their backpacks around them, studying or talking. Sometimes they would be talking with teachers, casually about their weekends or about what they had done in class that day, which was the most surprising to me. I thought that was absolutely awesome, and then second semester freshman year, when I could spend my frees outside of the library, I became one of those kids studying in the hallway. Even since we've gone hybrid I still get that feeling of community. Of course I think being in the building is the best, but when I'm virtual, too, I can call friends during free periods and study with them and go over our solutions to last night's chemistry homework, and that's really great.
What has your extracurricular experience been like thus far?
This year I'm the co-Undersecretary of Logistics for COMMUN, the Model UN conference that the school puts on for middle school students in the spring, which has been a new and really exciting experience. I'm also a member of the GSA (Gender-Sexuality Alliance).
I play the flute in Commonwealth's orchestra, and I study privately outside of the school as well. This year, for our first-ever virtual Winter Concert, I also joined chamber music to play one of Mozart's flute duets with the other flutist at the school (Ilaria Seidel '22). Putting on a concert entirely virtually, since I couldn't practice with the other musicians in the building because I play a wind instrument, was very challenging but rewarding. Commonwealth has a small orchestra, and so the music we play can be specifically selected for the types of players and instruments that we have that year. And we have some really talented musicians!
How has Commonwealth colored the way you learn and look at the world?
Commonwealth is teaching me to look at everything closer, to never settle for a first pass at an idea and observe and make connections with the world around me. In terms of my future, I still have no idea where I'm going with it, but I do know that Commonwealth has helped me explore new areas that I never would have thought to pursue on my own.
What's your advice for prospective students considering Commonwealth?
Make the most of your day visits to the school! It's a great opportunity not only to see how classes go but also to meet current students and ask any questions. As a day visit host, I can tell you we absolutely love to answer questions and talk about the school, and we love getting to know you! And a lot of student visitors don't realize they can participate in the classes they visit, but teachers are always excited to have you in class and are happy to call on you if you have an idea to share. It can really give you a feel of what it's like to learn here.
What's your advice for incoming students hoping to make the most of their first year at Commonwealth?
Freshman year offers you so many opportunities to adjust and get comfortable as a student at Commonwealth. Take the year to develop a strategy for managing your homework load, your studying plan, how you use your study hall periods. Those are really important skills you use throughout your time at school. And go to your study halls! They're a great place to get ahead on homework, and there will be a proctor in the room to answer questions as they come up, which is actually way more useful than you think. Also, meet with your teachers; it was definitely difficult for me to reach out for help initially, but all of our teachers are really accommodating, and I found that meeting with them when I was confused about some part of the class really helped.